Unintentionally Unsympathetic

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

When a character's supposed insecurities or embarrassing quirks are supposed to inspire sympathy, but fail to impress the audience because they're mishandled or plain written badly.

This is generally reserved for unpopular traits such as being overweight or being a nerd, both of which tend to be grossly exaggerated on television (see Hollywood Pudgy and Hollywood Nerd) and usually have nothing to do with anyone who might have such problems.

Sometimes these are humorous things in a character's past dredged up to embarrass them. This is supposed to make the character more human without affecting their present "perfection."

Often a problem with The Scrappy and some varieties of Mary Sue.

This is the opposite of Unintentionally Sympathetic.

See also Law of Disproportionate Response.

No real life examples, please; this is an Audience Reaction trope, and real people are not scripted.

Examples of Unintentionally Unsympathetic include:

Advertising

  • One series of Hoover ads portray their new vacuum as a reward for neat freaks. Except the neat freaks depicted seem to have mild OCD or Molysmophobia.[1] An Australian run of hand sanitizer ads makes the same mistake, marketing the Dettol hand sanitizer to the 'signing a credit card slip with your elbows' market.
    • Ditto for that newfangled no-touch soap dispenser. Right, so's you don't contaminate your hands with any icky germs just before you, y'know, wash them. Anyone that unreasonably terrified of germs doesn't need to be catered to with a no-touch soap pump; they need professional therapy to help overcome an apparently Howard Hughes-level case of germophobia.

Anime and Manga

  • Famously, Neon Genesis Evangelion has Shinji Ikari. As Evangelion is a Deconstruction of all things Super Robot, Shinji is insecure, weak-willed, shy, and unstable, as opposed to the stereotypical Hot-Blooded pilot. While plenty of fans see Shinji as The Woobie, just as many find him annoying and Wangsty and wish that he'd suck it up and start being a badass warrior. Of course, these audience members are either missing the point or taking umbrage with how Shinji forces them to acknowledge their own lameness.
    • Asuka Langley Soryu is also in the same position but for a different reason. She is a Jerkass Woobie and if some fans feel sorry for her, others fans think she is an annoying and arrogant bitch.
  • To a non-Japanese audience, Momotaro from the World War II propaganda film Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors comes off as a Complete Monster rallying adorable animals together to go to war and brutally kill British soldiers.
  • Haruna from Tenchi Forever is supposed to be a sympathetic Anti-Villain; a woman dead before she can live her romance with the man she loves and whose soul feels so alone, than she is trying to recreate this love story with the grandson of her former lover. What many viewers see is a bitch who kidnaps, brainwashes and rapes a teenage boy.
  • For many viewers, Mahiru Inami of Working!!. We're supposed to feel pity because she can't help but punch any man that comes across, but that's something really hard to sympathize with, especially as she doesn't seem to do much to fix it. She also gets a romance plot with the main guy that is supposed to be endearing, but fails because it just looks abusive (and when the guy complains about being punched, he's the one shown as the bad guy).
  • GE - Good Ending has Yuki, one of the main protagonists in the series. A good part of the manga is spent trying to get Utsumi, the protagonist, help her deal with her Broken Bird issues, only to have her throw everything out the window by asking him to rape her, in order to overwrite the bad memories she had with her previous boyfriend. Utsumi calls her out on it, so she dumps him because he's always too nice to her.
  • Naruto falls into this sometimes as well.
  • The early Pokémon episode "Challenge of the Samurai!" has Samurai constantly shame and browbeat Ash for not taking responsibility for his blunders, such as failing to catch a Weedle and allowing that Weedle to rile up a swarm of Beedrill that end up kidnapping his Metapod. The problem is, Ash's "blunders" are mistakes Samurai made in the first place. He stopped Ash from catching the Weedle by demanding a Pokémon battle at swordpoint, making it his fault that an angry Beedrill swarm are attacking them. But the episode treats Ash owning up to Samurai's mistakes as him learning his lesson as opposed to resigning himself to being the victim of Samurai's self-righteous Never My Fault mentality.

Comic Books

  • This proved to be a huge problem with the character Magog in DC Comics. When introduced in Kingdom Come he was a caricature of the worst part of 90's heroes, and was fairly popular for it, as he seemed so pathetic and remorseful. When he was brought into the main DC Universe he was given a huge push and eventually added to the Justice Society of America and later given his own series. He was shown to be a war veteran with PTSD, but proved to be so unlikable and mean to his teammates that he was eventually killed off in Justice League Generation Lost.
  • Nathan Lubinsky, a minor Spider-Man supporting character whom Peter's Aunt May was dating. You're supposed to sympathize with him because he's a Gambling Addict whose heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, it rarely is; while he did ultimately want to give May a far better life after he passed away (which he knew he would, as he was dying from heart disease) Nathan's gambling only got him into trouble and nearly got him killed. He wasn't easy to sympathize with or even easy to like, being a Grumpy Old Man who was rude to everyone, even folks like Peter who tried to help him. In the end, when his gambling habit finally did get him killed (by the Vulture, a villain who, ironically, he had befriended in an earlier story) fan reaction was relatively minor, at least compared to the deaths of other characters in the series like Ned Leeds and Gwen Stacy.

Film

  • In Unstoppable, main character Will Colson's wife has a restraining order against him keeping him from being able to see his son. The reason for the restraining order is because he suspected his wife was cheating on him, then gets upset when she won't submit to his spot check of her cell phone, grabs her violently, pulls a gun on a police officer and friend of his because he suspects he's sleeping with his wife, and she's not even cheating on him. Because he is one of the heroes of the movie, we're meant to sympathize with him and want him to get back together with his wife, despite the fact that he could easily be the villain in a Lifetime Movie of the Week.
  • In the Christian propaganda film Rock: It's Your Decision, the main character is meant to come off as a good Christian trying to steer clear from the "sins" of rock and roll and save others from it, but instead he comes off as a closed-minded and bigoted Jerkass to anyone who doesn't share the same values and interpretations of Christianity as the protagonist (and even then in some cases, as many Christians have no difficulty reconciling their faith and an enjoyment of secular entertainment).
  • The Happytime Murders is set in a fantastic version of our world where puppets exist alongside humans and are frequent victims of terrible Fantastic Racism. The audience is thus supposed to sympathize with and side with them, which is difficult because almost all the puppets in the movie are jerks, junkies, perverts, scum, or a combination of the four. Phil is the only one with any decent qualities, and even he drinks heavily and smokes too much. While the whole idea was to portray childhood figures as human-like, it's hard to sympathize with a bunch of creeps who only emphasize humanity's bad points.

Literature

  • Bella from Twilight, whose helplessness, constant whining, frequent disdain for other people, and lack of any real problems cause many to regard her as an Anti-Sue. Ditto for her love, Edward, who is so smug and perfect that it's hard to care about any emotional issues.
    • The Cullens in general could count. They are held up as the epitome of generosity and goodness. Even so, they generally are cold and anti-social to anyone who isn't another vampire or Bella, they are hostile towards the werewolves even though some (for example, Alice) never even met the werewolves before, and they are perfectly fine with letting vampires that do drink human blood hang around the area. Apparently their desire to protect humans only counts as long as they themselves are killing, and so long as the human isn't Bella. Also, every one of them except for Carlisle has killed at least once in their past, and recollections of said murders are generally treated as embarrassing incidents that are swept aside.
  • Pedro from Like Water for Chocolate. He only marries Rosaura de la Garza to be close to her sister Josefita aka Tita (who's stuck as The Dutiful Daughter), heavily neglects Rosaura which furthers her increasing Jerkassery and ultimately destroys her and Tita's already shaky relationship, causes poor Tita quite the misery as well (and she doesn't forget to call him out on it), and years later bullies and pressures Tita when Nice Guy Dr. Brown shows interest in her. (Not to mention, he barely seems to acknowledge his and Rosaura's children unless it's needed for the plot.) So, Pedro is supposed to be Tita's One True Love and the right guy for her... why?
  • Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God . Her first husband spends the first few months of their marriage waiting on her hand and foot, but when he eventually starts expecting her to pull her weight around the farm she runs off with the first young hottie she sees. She even tells her grandmother that Husband #1 is completely incapable of ever being loved by anyone...because he's ugly. Her issues with Husband #2 are more legit, but even then it's hard to sympathize—unlike Husband #1, he doesn't want her to do any work much, but she just complains more about being bored and how the little work she has watching the store is too much math for her poor little head. Then she tells him off on his deathbed and at one point blames all her problems on her dead grandma, who told her not to run off with Husband #2 in the first place. Jeez!

Live-Action TV

  • At the end of season two of Robin Hood, Guy of Gisborne stabbed Maid Marian to death, sending his Character Development and Redemption Arc back to square one. Season Three tried to turn him into a Heartbroken Badass, ignoring the fact that for a significant portion of the fanbase, he had already crossed the Moral Event Horizon when he stabbed Maid Marian to death and thus forfeited any right to the goodwill of the audience. Even the actor hated him.
    • On the same show, the death of Kate's brother did not carry the emotional weight it should have done thanks to Kate's refusal to utilize common sense in her repeated attempts to rescue him. The writers were going for "headstrong" and "impulsive" in their characterization of Kate—unfortunately, all they really managed was "stupid." The ridiculous swinging between Wangst and trying to romance Robin didn't help her either.
      • And the cherry on top is the fact that Kate's brother was killed by Guy, resulting in a scene in which the audience has no reason to care about anyone involved.
      • And the cherry on top of that cherry is that depending on how you see it, Kate is at fault as well for the murder. he died because she got captured trying to get him out of the army and he died trying to save her. Some fans wonder if he might have survived had she just left him in the army.
  • Cirilo Rivera from Carrusel. His unrequited crush on Maria Joaquina sometimes bordered on obsession. He never stalked her—let alone hurt her -- but he did not give up on her no matter how much she turned him down. And let's face it—she was out of his league, which has NOTHING to do with their being of different races or even socioeconomic statuses; she, well, just didn't like him that way. But he would not stop, and kept showering her with gifts and attentions that she clearly didn't want and either upset her or creeped her out. Viewers were supposed to take Cirilo's side... but Maria Joaquina ended up being the one often favored by the audience instead, since in practice, nobody blamed her for not loving a kid that clingy (and borderline creepy) back.
  • In All in The Family, viewers were supposed to see Archie as unlikable, as he's a bigot and a rude, loud, nasty person. This means that in the frequent arguments he has with his son-in-law Mike, you're supposed to side with Mike. Problem is, Mike was something of a jerk too, his left-wing Liberal views often just as extreme - and just as absurd - as Archie's right-wing Conservative views.
  • To many viewers, the ending of WandaVision utterly destroyed any sympathy they might have had for Wanda Maximoff thanks to these eight deadly words: "They'll never know what you sacrificed for them". Wanda Mind Raping an entire town full of innocent people into becoming her slaves so she could live out her ideal sitcom life with Vision was horrible enough from the outset. Having it be treated with all the horror that it deserved made it even worse. So for it all to be swept under the rug with Monica Rambeau insinuating that Wanda's victims were ungrateful bastards for being angry with her felt almost like the show was vindicating Wanda for her selfishness.

Newspaper Comics

  • Anthony from For Better or For Worse, so very very much. You're supposed to feel sympathy for him because his wife doesn't want their baby and he "doesn't have a home," but not only is it irritating, it rubs in the fact that he harassed her into having a child she didn't want in the first place. He lost even more ground when it came to light that he even promised that he would stay home with the kid, but had no intention of keeping that promise because he expected the magic of motherhood to kick in and somehow make his wife want to quit her job (which was heavily implied to make more than his did) and raise the kid anyways. But she's supposed to be the bad guy for wanting him to keep his promise and because she's not maternal.
    • Toward the end of its run, everyone in the strip has begun to qualify. They're bitchy, selfish, and utterly unlikable.

Video Games

  • A recurring problem with Pokémon villains introduced in later games is that while they skew towards the Tragic Villain/Anti-Villain side of the sliding scale of villainy, they tend to act in ways that invalidate their sympathetic treatment in the eyes of many a player.
    • While Archie and Maxie's overhaul in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire makes them easier to sympathize with in a way that doesn't cause them to run afoul of this trope, the same can not be said about other villains in the same games. Funnily enough, both examples are found in the post-game Delta Episode.
      • As if it wasn't bad enough that Zinnia endangered Earth by helping Team Aqua/Magma trigger an apocalypse so she could get Rayquaza to swoop in and save the day, she does it twice. And the second time she does it, she severely undercuts whatever good intentions she has by acting like a rude and condescending Smug Snake who deliberately sabotages safer attempts at preventing a meteor strike so she can act morally superior to Professor Cosmo and Steven, who had no way of knowing that their plan to transport the meteor to another dimension would have endangered that dimension's Earth in return. She also commits several acts of assault and burglary on top of that, and had it not been for sheer dumb luck, her plan to summon Rayquaza to destroy the meteor would have backfired and gotten everyone killed. And yet she's never taken to task over her actions, making her come off as worse than Archie and Maxie, who at least genuinely repented when they saw what their actions led to.
      • Depending on the game, Matt or Courtney start causing trouble to avenge their boss, who's bummed out after their defeat in the main campaign. While it isn't right, it's at least understandable. But what's a lot less understandable is the fact that they deliberately try to destroy the world over it. Despite inexplicably turning into Omnicidal Maniacs on par with Lysandre, they get off with a slap on the wrist and their bosses are the ones who have to apologize for their sudden descent into batshit insanity.
    • The narrative of Pokémon Sun and Moon tries its best to paint Lusamine as a flawed, but otherwise good woman who was ultimately a victim of Nihilego's corrupting influence. However, her sadistic cruelty, abhorrent treatment of her children, and sociopathic tendencies in general make her look far worse than the developers intended. And it doesn't help that we don't see any of her genuinely good and altruistic deeds on-screen, making Lillie's assertions that she was a loving mother in the past feel like she's in denial of the monster Lusamine really was. Not even Nihilego's influence is the get-out-of-jail-free card that the developers intended, because its venom doesn't brainwash people so much as it brings out their worst traits, making her come off as a bad woman turned worse rather than a good woman warped into an unrecognizable psycho.
    • In theory, Chairman Rose from Pokémon Sword and Shield is a sympathetic, if misguided Anti-Villain whose patriotism and fear for the future cause him to take extreme measures to protect the Galar region from an impending energy crisis. But the attempts at making him sympathetic fall flat, not because he's too evil or crosses any major lines... but rather, because he's dangerously stupid. Galar's energy crisis isn't going to be a problem for thousands of years, yet he's so impatient and eager to use the vicious Eternatus as an energy source that he can't wait a single day to execute his master plan in a way that won't endanger an entire stadium of innocent civilians despite Leon's warnings. The fact that he is deeply remorseful for what he's done to the point of turning himself in to the police takes the edge off a bit, but a lot of players still feel that he comes off looking like an impatient dumbass instead of a noble Tragic Villain.
  • Rocket Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy is presented as a lovable asshole whose heart is in the right place, but the execution makes it hard to like him, let alone love him. He constantly whines, bitches, and complains about everything Peter "Star Lord" Quill does, and won't hesitate to throw tantrums that compromise the team's missions. Every single time the Guardians hit a snag in their plans he'll chew out Peter, culminating in him briefly ditching the team in the middle of an important mission, and even after he rejoins he'll still loudly complain and tear into Peter over the smallest thing. While you can have Peter call him out at multiple points, he often doubles down on his obnoxious behavior and never genuinely apologizes for the way he acts, making him feel like every bit the manchild that Peter is often accused of being.
  • The fall of Repliforce in Mega Man X4 is treated as a tragedy, one where its members are wrongfully accused of going Maverick and are killed thanks to the manipulations of Sigma and the paranoia of humans and Maverick Hunters alike. But while individual members like General and Iris are easy to feel bad for, that doesn't quite work for the rest of them. After suspicious circumstances place Repliforce at ground zero of a terrorist attack, Colonel refuses to disarm and come in for questioning. He instead decides to declare war, making him responsible for everything going wrong out of a sense of stubborn, pigheaded pride. Shortly afterward you have Repliforce start what's essentially a robot ethnostate in outer space, on an orbital space station with a planet-busting superweapon pointed directly at the Earth. And when you go after members of Repliforce causing trouble around the world, they're usually outright giddy at the prospect of going to war and fighting X and Zero. In the case of Jet Stingray and Storm Owl, a few of them are even leading military assaults on civilian populations, with Stingray being noted to have destroyed an entire city before you get to him. It's really hard to buy Repliforce as victims of circumstance when they go out of their way to act like a bunch of murderous, warmongering assholes.

Western Animation

  • South Park parodies this numerous times. For instance, when Eric Cartman contracts HIV he constantly reminds people of it for sympathy, and any time something bad happens to Cartman, he attempts to milk sympathy and fails.
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 Cartman: I'm not just sure: I'm HIV positive.

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  • In X-Men: Evolution, Lance's romantic subplot with Kitty starts with him saving her life -- from an accident that he caused. He had also previously attempted to attack Kitty, and due to the nature of his powers, he tends to cause a lot of collateral damage (sometimes near schools populated by children who are never confirmed to have gotten out alive). To some people, all this makes it kind of hard to believe that Kitty would want him for a boyfriend. This also puts him in the somewhat unusual situation of being a common victim of both Ron the Death Eater and Draco in Leather Pants.
    • A weird inversion actually happens because of this. The time Avalanche did attempt a Heel Face Turn, Scott doesn't buy it and proceeds to mistrust him. This is made out to be wrong of Scott, except, he is completely justified in mistrusting him: Lance was actually his biggest rival and had pulled crap on him and others before. While we (as the audience) knew that Lance was trying to do good things for Kitty's sake, Scott simply lacked such knowledge since Lance had given him reason to be antagonistic, and thus it's understandable to have him not trust Lance off the bat, and it would've been Out of Character otherwise.
  • Brian from Family Guy. The audience is obviously supposed to feel sorry for him since he's a Starving Artist living in a world of idiots, but he's so arrogant and prone to dropping anvils that he just comes off as a Jerkass.
    • Ironically, when Quagmire called him out on everything in one episode, he became unintentionally unsympathetic, as many found it hypocritical for Quagmire to be saying these things to Brian and felt he had no right to. That his hatred for Brain got flanderized since then, with Brian coming out more sympathetic in their encounters, hasn't helped.
  • Cree Lincoln from Codename: Kids Next Door fits this perfectly. While some people treat her like a Draco in Leather Pants, she's utterly loathed because of this. While is pretty clear she's a treacherous villain, we're supposed to sympathize with her because deep down loves her heroic little sister Abby/Numbuh 5 and wants to reconcile with her. Except she spends all the time treating her like crap, tries to kill her numerous times, and all her supposed Pet the Dog moments get destroyed by the next episode. If that wasn't enough, she wants to reconcile with her on her own terms, meaning coercing Abby into pulling a Face Heel Turn with neither concern for her feelings nor willingness to make any effort to be a better person and repair their relationship. And yet poor Abby still loves and cares about her, even when she repeatedly proves she doesn't deserve it.
    • What makes her particularly loathsome is that her status as a villain does not excuse her abusive behavior towards her sister. Many other villains who are supposed to be worse than her (Mr. Boss, for example) treat their fellow family members with love and respect, even if they're on the heroic side. Heck, it goes to the point Father himself is considered far more sympathetic by comparison!
    • Chad Dickson in "Operation: T.R.E.A.T.Y" manages to surpass Cree in this department. He's meant to be seen as a sympathetic Reverse Mole for the KND, and that reveal would have inspired sympathy had he not tried to outright kill Nigel/Numbuh One out of petty jealousy (which was something that wasn't ordered by his superiors) and acted like a complete and utter dick throughout the whole series. While Nigel/Numbuh One is shown to be regretful over how their relationship had turned out, most of the audience only felt sorry for Nigel.
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